When I am beginning therapy with a family, the first thing I do is re-educate parents on a few things. So, I will also start here by debunking three myths before I get to my Ten Tips for Parents to Improve a Child’s Emotional Wellbeing.
Myth Debunker #1: Disregard the propaganda by the pharmaceutical companies and psychiatrists that there is a biological cause of “mental disorders,” such as an imbalance in neurochemicals or a genetic flaw. These have never been scientifically proven. Millions of dollars in research funding have been thrown at trying to prove a biological cause of emotional problems, with an almost frantic avoidance by psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies to even consider other explanations. However, the most common child behavioral problems, which are labeled as ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder, are actually very expectable learned emotional and behavioral responses.
Myth Debunker #2: The current psychiatric system uses the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to “diagnose.” The DSM considers only “symptoms” and ignores fundamental facts about scientifically proven causes of human distress, such as intrinsic emotional reactions, trauma, family environments, parenting styles, and dysfunctional relationships. Based on a subjective grouping of “symptoms,” the DSM creates a complicated and illogical diagnostic system with arcane labels, such as “schizoaffective disorder” or “bi-polar disorder II.” Among the many complaints about it, the DSM is not scientifically reliable or valid. I tell parents not to focus on a child’s “diagnosis,” because it has no meaning.
Myth Debunker #3: Since “mental disorders” are not biological in nature, they do not need medications to “treat” them, and they are not lifelong illnesses. They are – simply – emotional problems. And we already have a system for teaching children healthy social and emotional functioning — it’s called parents.
I believe debunking these myths provides families hope that change is possible.
Instead of blindly following the false disease model and the DSM, I have developed a scientifically based replacement called Self-Acceptance Psychology. This is a simple, but powerful, new paradigm that reframes human distress as an adaptive and self-protective emotional and behavioral response to shame. Self-Acceptance Psychology postulates that nearly all “mental disorders” are really shame intolerance disorders.
Self-Acceptance Psychology is so simple anyone can understand it, yet so powerful it can become a new framework for formulating and conceptualizing psychological problems.
Self-Acceptance Psychology identifies Five Causative Factors that inter-connect to create unhealthy shame intolerance in children and, later, adults. These factors are based on fundamental human conditions and well-researched psychological concepts, yet they are largely ignored by the DSM.
Factor 2. Fear of Social Exclusion
Factor 4. Trauma
Factor 5. Attachment Status
The Five Factors combine to provide a perfect storm that exacerbates low self-worth or self-shaming, leading to unhealthy responses to shame. All people experience the fear response when threatened physically or emotionally (Factor #1). Finding acceptance and avoiding ostracism are natural, primal elements of our social nature as humans (Factor #2). For most people, the greatest emotional threats are criticism, exclusion, abandonment, rejection, or humiliation (Factor #3). Some unlucky souls also suffer from childhood trauma, such as emotional or physical neglect (Factor #4). Trauma primes the brain to be hyper vigilant to threat (Factor #1), feels rejecting (Factor #2), often involves parental failures (Factor #5) and can be shaming (Factor #3) if the victim assumes responsibility for the event. Insecure attachment occurs due to inappropriate parenting, (Factor #5), and can cause a person to be sensitivity to shame (Factor #3), to lack strong self-worth and to have a weak sense of social belonging (Factor #2).
The first three factors are natural reactions by all humans, but the last two factors are directly affected by parenting. Combined, these factors cause hyper-vigilance to and hyper-reactivity to emotional threat and worsen low self-worth and poor shame tolerance.
Self-Acceptance Psychology also identifies three unbalanced and unhealthy behaviors used in an attempt to manage shame:
Other-Blaming: “You are at fault.”
Self-Blaming: “I am at fault.”
Blame Avoiding: “No one is at fault.”
A healthy response to shame requires an ability to tolerate criticism in resilient ways, be accountable for faults, and apologize to reconcile relationships. This flows from good self-acceptance of our inherent flaws and failures.
In contrast, to people with poor shame tolerance even minor or perceived criticism may trigger a primal fear response. The resulting reactive blame-shifting behaviors are the cause of essentially all of our modern psychological and behavioral problems, including anger and oppositional problems, the poor focus and hyperactivity of ADHD, anxiety, depression, and personality disorders. Most of the diagnoses in the DSM are actually descriptions of a person who is hyper-vigilant to being emotionally shamed, victimized, or rejected by others and who is often shaming and rejecting of themselves.
A child’s “oppositional” behaviors are Other-Blaming behaviors as an attempt to escape from the pain of being corrected or punished, because the experience of shame is unbearable.
A child may also exhibit perfectionism, over-compliance, or over-achieving, with behaviors such as eating disorders and general or specific anxieties. These are merely a tendency to Self-Blame to attempt to fix what is seen as flawed about the self.
I believe that the goal of good parenting is to grow a child’s self-acceptance, accountability and shame tolerance leading to emotional resilience. Without these she will not have healthy relationships with others — or with herself.
With an understanding of the framework of Self-Acceptance Psychology, we can now get down to business withy my Ten Parenting Tips.
Ten Parenting Tips to Improve a Child’s Emotional Wellbeing
1. Get your own emotional house in order first. (This can be the most difficult lesson for parents to hear, because it provokes the uncomfortable emotion of shame. So, please tolerate the shame, be accountable, and stay with me!)
A child’s emotional health is formed through the availability of safe, attuned, responsive, predictable and nurturing relationships in early childhood. To promote bonding or attachment, the parent has to be “inviting” to the child — calm, happy and emotionally secure. This gives a child the message, “I can handle you. You are not too much of an emotional or physical burden.”
If a mother struggles with her own poor shame tolerance and is angry, anxious or depressed, these insecurities signal that the parent is wrapped up in her own self-preservation and is in an emotional “fight-or-flight” survival mode. When self-absorbed, a parent is less able to consistently notice and react to a child’s emotions, facial expressions, and body language. A child learns not to depend on mom for comfort because she is busy trying to get comfort for her own emotional needs. If the baby becomes hyper-aroused and emotionally dysregulated, and is not soothed by the parent this engrains a pattern of emotional responses to threats that can lead to behavioral problems later in childhood and into adulthood.
Research shows that a part of our brain called the amygdala can actually sense the emotional states of other people. Children can intuitively sense fear. Even newborns are exquisitely attuned to their caregivers’ emotions. If parents are preoccupied or distressed, children pick up on this instantly and become anxious. I believe they may also conclude: “I caused my parents to be anxious or depressed, so I am a burden, and I am an unworthy and shameful human being.”
Even if your child is older, you can fix this situation. Become self-aware. Learn to manage your own nervous system and emotions through psychotherapy, mindfulness meditation, and self-calming. Read attachment-based parenting books. Talk to a psychotherapist about your childhood, how your parents raised you, and events that shaped you. Understand and manage your own motivations, fears, shameful feelings, and insecurities before they harm your child.
You must heal your own trauma first to heal your child. If you cannot soothe yourself, how can you soothe your child? If you do not accept yourself, how can you accept your child? If you are not compassionate toward yourself, how can you be compassionate toward your child?
Be the best person you can be so you can be the best parent possible.
Also recognize this important fact: If you don’t step up and take responsibility for your effect on your child, then she may conclude with a shaming lesson that SHE is to blame. Is that the lesson you want to impart on your child’s heart and mind?
2. Create safety, reduce fear. When in doubt about your behavior as a parent think: “Is what I am doing making my child feel safe or scared?” Does your child feel an emotional threat when you are harsh, rejecting, impatient, ignore him, or yell? Think about your behaviors from the framework of fear. If you were a scared, insecure child how would you react to a parent yelling, shaming, hitting, spanking, or threatening? What can you do to increase the relaxation and calm in the household?
Be aware that your anger creates what is called a stressful double bind for a child. When your child is afraid, his instincts tell him to go to you for soothing. But when you are a source of terror this gives your child confusing messages and leads to significant problems in brain and behavioral development.
Even timeouts can be seen as fear-provoking, because children are not meant to suffer emotional distress alone.
Model respectful behavior by having a rule of, “No yelling, shaming, bullying, teasing, put-downs or namecalling of any kind in our home.” Negativity fuels stress and lowers self-worth. When you say judgmental comments such as, “You never get ready on time,” be aware of how this shames and labels a child in a negative way. Are you blame-shifting to your child in a way that provokes fear?
3. Model accountability and shame tolerance. Getting your own emotional house in order will help you do so. If you are easily triggered by shame into fear and anger, you will not stay calm and present for your child, and will not model accountability.
If you argue excessively, this reinforces to children that they should not accept being wrong — that it is a painful, shameful experience. Instead, lead by example. Admit fault gracefully and promptly. Also: Ask for help, admit you do not know an answer, and back down in an argument and compromise. These are essential reciprocity skills for all relationships. Accountability is tied to empathy, because if we care about others, we apologize and repair relationships.
Accountability also teaches a child to acquiesce to authority, a natural part of all relationships whether it is future friend, spouse, boss, teacher, police officer, or drill sergeant. If a child does not learn to manage conflict, their relationships may become high conflict or conflict avoiding, neither of which is healthy.
4. Stop excessive shaming and blaming. Stop thinking of discipline as punishment. Think of it as education. (The word “discipline” is based on the Greek word “disciple,” meaning “learner.”) Children will sense the difference.
Parents must, of course, correct and guide a child. However, consistent use of harsh punishment will be felt as a shaming “attack.” The child may respond with lashing out and blaming others or attacking inward in self-blame. This will reinforce an unhealthy shame tolerance pattern of anger at others or the self. Blame shifting does successfully manage individual feelings of inadequacy, but leads to a lifetime of poor emotional health and dysfunctional relationships.
Instead, put on your “teacher” hat and you will be less emotionally threatening. Patiently guide your child in the correct behaviors as a way to help the child live a happy emotionally healthy life.
5. Look past behaviors to the emotions that drive actions. When your child misbehaves, use reflective listening to try to understand why the child is doing what he is doing. This also helps him understand his own motives and behaviors. A child who feels heard and loved will want to please and obey. (For specifics, see my handout on Reflective Listening.)
Be on the lookout for shame or a sense of unworthiness. This is often disguised as anger, tantrums, or “an attitude.” Remember this aphorism: Anger is shame’s bodyguard. Other-Blaming is a common way to deflect and escape from painful feelings of inadequacy. Shame can also show up in kids as Self-Blaming with helplessness, poor frustration tolerance, low self-worth, avoiding chores, or forgetting to turn in homework.
6. Never let ‘em see you sweat. Avoid telling children “you are on my last nerve,” “I am at my wits’ end,” “I am stressed out,” or other comments that indicate you are overwhelmed with parenting. If a parent is incompetent, it makes a child feel unsafe and stressed. If a child feels she is a burden to parents, this can exacerbate feelings of unworthiness and rejection.
7. If you say it, it has to come true. Stop negotiating and making empty threats. Terrorists and gangsters use coercion, extortion, and bribery. By negotiating you are teaching a child to argue back. Why should parents encourage this skill in children? If you use coercion to control your child, the child learns to control parents and others coercively. There are age-appropriate times to listen to your child and mutually agree on expected behaviors and consequences. But these must be discussed ahead of time. Avoid deals like: “If you do X, I’ll give you Y.” This sets the child up to be in control of the situation and have power over you. He gets to choose NOT to do X if he wants to!
Explaining, justifying and rationalizing are skills used by Other-Blamers who use manipulation and negotiating as ways to shift blame for their behaviors. This does not teach a child the core skill of accountability.
External rewards also encourage a child to look to others for approval and motivation, making relationships into contingent experiences. Instead, teach intrinsic self-motivation. Expect good behavior as a natural, respectful parent-child relationship. This is fundamentally non-negotiable.
- Parents should speak in clear, firm statements, not always ask questions. Don’t say: “Let’s go to the store, ok?” Tell, don’t ask!
- Speak in “accountability language.” Don’t say, “WE have to do the dishes,” if you mean, “YOU have to do the dishes.”
- Don’t offer bribes for behavior. Children should behave because you tell them to, not because there is an external reward. This does not teach internal self-regulation and self-motivation. Also, this external reward does not help a child learn self-worth by being self-directed.
- Don’t explain every decision you make. This puts the child in charge and weakens your power.
- Speak and move on. Don’t stand and wait for a child’s response. Act AS IF he is going to obey. Don’t wait for his refusal or negotiation.
- There is no rule that says you have to continue a conversation with an oppositional child. Walk away, change the topic, start singing, go on about your business. If you stand and wait for a response to your directive, it implies a response is needed.
8. Stop talking. Words may seem powerful, but they are not. Endless arguing, explaining, nagging, and lecturing are a sign the child has power over you and controls the conversation.
When disciplining, remember that a child’s cognitive brain is not fully developed. Explaining, reasoning, or being logical are not very effective due to your child’s limited thinking capabilities. Listening to a parent can even be dysregulating to a child for this reason. When he feels he cannot understand what you want, he will feel incapable and unworthy, leading to poor shame tolerance.
Stop using the word “because.” “Eat your spinach because the doctor said it is good for you.” This invokes the power of other authority figures, rather than relying on your power alone.
Act, don’t talk. Use your physical presence to signal your serious intent. (This does NOT mean corporal punishment, physical abuse, or spanking.) If you have to discipline, do not yell across the house. Get up and go to the child. Stand tall and assertively in front of him. Be calm and firm. Tell the child ONCE what you expect. Then with a serious, calm expression look directly at him and do not break eye contact. Assertive body language and direct eye contact are more powerful communicators than an avalanche of words, especially with young children.
9. Don’t parent out of guilt or shame. If you have made mistakes as a parent (welcome to the club!) or have children who have experienced hurts or traumas, it is easy to feel guilty and want to protect them from future “negative” experiences. However, you cannot and should not protect children from all feelings of shame. Doing so leads to permissive or authoritarian parenting or anxious “helicopter” parenting.
For example, say a child throws his piggybank on the floor in a rage. He later forgets this fact and says he wants to put change in the bank, but the mother knows the bank is broken. Should she try to soften his shame and rush out and buy a new bank or make a justification for his behavior? What would that teach him? Poor shame tolerance and lack of accountability. The broken bank is a fact and a natural consequence of his behavior. Parents should not skate away from truth and accountability to avoid provoking feelings of shame. Kids must learn to experience shame so they learn to tolerate it. If not, they will develop unhealthy behaviors blame-shifting behaviors.
10. Teach self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is the antidote to fear — especially the fear of being seen as unworthy and then experiencing shame, rejection and exclusion. It decreases self-critical thoughts or self-shaming, making it easier to tolerate the experience of feeling ashamed when criticized or rejected by others.
Self-acceptance frees the mind from feelings of inadequacy and the self-blaming thoughts that lie at the heart of many experiences with anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, personality disorders and many others.
Parents can help children learn self-acceptance by providing their initial experience with emotional attunement, nurturing, and compassion. Through this early experience, children learn to self-soothe, rather than repeat fear-provoking habits of negative thinking and self-judgment. This improves mental focus, strengthens emotional regulation skills, and lets kids manage their thoughts and behaviors in healthy ways.
I often begin family therapy telling parents: You are your child’s best therapist. How you parent your child on a daily basis has direct, long-term effects on his brain development, which affects how she thinks, feels, behaves and interacts with others. The sooner you start, the better chance your child has at success. A child’s brain is not fully developed at birth. It grows by 90 percent in the first five years of life and continues to develop until age 25 or so. This means that every day your child’s brain is developing and growing. Through daily positive interactions with parents, children learn crucial pro-social skills such as accountability and empathy and their brains develop in emotionally healthy ways. Once your child’s brain development time is lost, it is lost forever. Start today!